Oh, my poor ears. Such linguistic violence. Such deadening prose, such crashing, turgid, half-baked cod-dramatic banality. Today Nick Clegg took every political cliche he could find, smashed them together with toe-curling metaphors and shameless sentimentality and gave them to us as a Conference speech.
No belt was left untightened, no house kept in disorder. We discovered that there was a national shortage of silver bullets and that true costs could not be counted in pounds and pence. Journeys were not complete and pressing on while staying anchored was essential.
Children gazed soulfully at parents as they went off to school for the first time, little knowing their trepidation was to be used as a political crutch in a conference speech.
Worst of all, we were told that not only does freedom have a sound, and that this sound can only be found after stripping away a series of layers to find the core of the Liberal Democrat party, but that the sound of freedom can differentiated by the philosophy of the espouser.
Socialism’s freedom is a dull thud, libertarianism offers only a tinny clink, while liberalism’s sound is rich and deep, and amplified by the most powerful force imaginable, the Marshall Amp of opportunity. Perhaps that’s why the chime of Liberal freedom had not died away while we stripped away those layers. The sustain of opportunity on the organ of rhetoric had preserved it for us.
Why do the language such violent harm? I’ve not even reached the bizarre crescendo in which we were reminded of a previous injunction not to look in a rear view mirror, then told to do just this so we could stand on the shoulders of previous generations marching towards gunfire.
Leaving aside the feats of perspective and temporal flexibility required to look in a rear view mirror at the past and simultaneously stand on the shoulders of erstwhile gunfire seekers, this does not sound like a particularly advisable activity. No wonder all the metaphors were dead.
Apologies. I take a professional interest in these things, and I feel somewhat provoked.
I need to take a few deep breaths, because buried under the detritus of ill-advised speechifying lay an interesting idea. Nick Clegg was telling his party that there exists a political space for a party that combines both social justice and economic credibility, and that the Liberal Democrats were uniquely positioned to be such a party, if they remained committed to the approach set out in the happier times of May 2010.
Clegg raised the twin spectres of heartless Tories and spendthrift socialists and attempted to differentiate his party from both. In doing so, he found he could not criticise either of his rival leaders. Cameron because the Prime Minister cannot be caricatured as cruel without undermining Clegg’s enthusiasm for Coaltion, Miliband presumably because he does not represent Labour’s reckless past in the same way Ed Balls does.
This speech was, in other words, an attempt by Nick Clegg to leap into the “Blair shaped hole” in British politics that Clegg’s erstwhile director of Strategy, Richard Reeves has identified.
I happen to think Nick Clegg may have a point. Stripped of any responsibility for the economic idiocy of the last two years, he made a reasonable case for a party that combines an instinct for fairness, for the burdens to fall on those who could pay most, to create opportunities for those least privileged, with the dry economic rationality that says what one borrows one must be capable of repaying.
He also made, I think, a good argument about the need to focus on long term green growth , a balanced economy and educational achievement. I suspect both these passages of the speech could be lifted into an Andrew Adonis, Chuka Umunna or Ed Miliband equivalent without too much drastic harm to its essential meaning.
However, Nick Clegg cannot be stripped of such responsibility. He cannot ignore his responsibility for the failures of the last two years. He cannot be an effective messenger for the kind of party he and Reeves has identified.
Partly, this is because of his own flaws, such as his regular resort to overblown drivel in political extremis, whether pledge based or metaphorical. Today certainly highlighted that aspect of the Clegg miasma.
More importantly, Clegg can’t do it because he’s desperately unconvincing as a equidistant figure. His past enthusiasm for coalition, his solid support for a Tory economic strategy at the moment of coalition formation means he cannot now sell us something different.
Nick Clegg sealed his fate, not by entering coalition, but by entering it on George Osborne’s terms. He cannot back away from that now, and so long as he is leader, nor can his party.